Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes its title from Lee Israel's memoir, but like much in her life, the words aren't completely her own. Israel first penned the phrase in the guise of Dorothy Parker, forging a letter by the famous American poet and writer, and selling it for a handsome sum. For a brief period in the early 90s, that's how Israel made a living. After establishing her career as a celebrity biographer, and earning praise for channelling the voice of her subjects, she couldn't get another book published. So she put those skills to other use, starting with a genuine but embellished thank you note, and segueing into outright — and highly lucrative — counterfeiting. Still, Israel was proud. "I'm a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker," she boasted.
Based on Israel's confessional account of her crimes, Can You Ever Forgive Me? tells this heist-like tale, however it also tells so much more. Directed with an eye for quiet detail by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) from an evocative and insightful screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Jeff Whitty, it's an examination of everything from loneliness to the limits of celebrity worship — the things we do to fill our lives, and the need we have to connect with our idols. The film also charts a complex friendship that acts as a temporary balm for two unhappy souls, and portrays a tender, tentative and troubled romance, neither of which follow any formula. Of course, first and foremost, it's a portrait of the movie's central figure. Even if Israel hadn't dabbled with literary fraud, she could've spawned numerous character studies.
Played with a hard veneer and begrudgingly vulnerable centre by a career-best Melissa McCarthy, Israel is passionate about chronicling the lives of great women. With her agent (Jane Curtin) continually brushing her off, she's also vastly under-appreciated. She drinks whisky at the thankless job that pays her bills until she's fired,and at her favourite bar every chance she gets. She refuses to temper her personality to please anyone, or simply get along with anyone for that matter. As becomes clear whenever Israel interacts with the world, she loves her cat more than people — even bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells) on their awkward dates, and even fellow outcast and barfly Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who becomes her only friend. Then her beloved feline falls ill and Israel can't afford to take her to the vet, so she gets into the forgery game.
Many of Can You Ever Forgive Me?'s delights come from McCarthy, both when she's alone and also sharing scenes with Grant. While Israel was real and her story as well, the screen versions of both come to life in the actor's hands. It's a compelling, awards-worthy performance, one that's played close to the chest to capture Israel's closed-off nature, while remaining expressive in every inch. McCarthy paints Israel as someone who's always herself, even when she's pretending not to be — and when she pals around with Grant's rambunctious, resourceful, up-for-anything drinking buddy, the duo feel like they could walk out of the film and into any dank New York watering hole of their choosing.
On the surface, McCarthy's switch from garnering laughs to evoking deep empathy might sound familiar, with plenty of comedians following that path before. And yet, nothing about her work as the misanthropic and purposefully thorny Israel feels routine, which is another of Can You Ever Forgive Me?'s great charms.Heller knows how juicy Israel's tale is, and firmly proves that fact is stranger than fiction. She also knows that this story is a product of a fascinating, complicated and distinctive woman, who both committed the details to the page and actually committed the crimes. Heller may only have two movies to her name, however she's a perceptive, probing and generous director, giving her characters the space they need to shine and fail and experience everything in-between.
Indeed, in bringing Israel's life to the screen, Heller and McCarthy have clearly taken her words to heart. The real-life writer bragged about stepping into someone else's shoes so easily and convincingly, and the women leading this fantastic film achieve the very same thing — just without perpetrating a sham.